I first learned to be self-conscious about how I dress in primary school. When you’re nine and have a uniform you need to wear most of the week, and thus only have enough clothing for Chinese school, church and lounging at home — it’s a nasty shock to discover that ‘outfit-repeating’ is actually quite the faux pas. I remember sobbing to my mother, confused, angry, because I couldn’t understand how, (a), my classmates could remember what I wore at the last casual clothes day, weeks ago, and (b), why they always had to tell me that I was wearing the same combination of clothing items again. Lord, if they could see me now …
Looking back, a good fifteen years later, I guess you could call this experience my first sociology lesson: my introduction to the dynamics of class as it manifests through access to quantity and style and variety and quality of clothing. It taught me to assign what I now consider undue significance to #OOTDs (though we didn’t have the hashtags back then), which, at the time, seemed oh-so-critical to being liked and accepted, or at least, not a social pariah. It also trained me to want more, and cheap.
I am still unlearning that lesson.
I first learned about Rana Plaza in high school. I don’t remember if it was when it happened, or later: only that, in Year 11, the question that sprung to me on my first day of economics lesson was about fair trade, and that, by Year 12, shopping for outfits to wear for graduation events was making me feel hella guilty. Being called out or perceived for being poor, economically or culturally, no longer seemed important.
As a uni student, I dragged my mother to the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival to watch The True Cost with me, and was probably compulsively using the Goodonyou app by then. After getting my first job and receiving my first paycheck, I stopped purchasing clothes from the usual retailers, and became obsessive about finding ethical labels. I have a plain tee that remains my trusty go-to from Vegethreads; I bought Vejas back when Australians could only really find them online, and Nobody Denim jeans that, at the time, I could barely afford.
I once interned at a now-defunct ethical clothing label, assisting on photoshoots, interviewing bloggers for promotional content and facilitating sponsored posts. There are emails in my depths of my inbox to sock companies, because I couldn’t even bring myself to buy socks without asking brand owners to confirm the labour standards in place at their factories. And even now, as a PhD student, I have to admit: besides my Honour thesis, my third-year essay on garment workers and the feminisation of global labour chains, is still one of my bits of academic writing that I’m proudest of.
All this to say: #FashionRevolution is my sociologist origin story. I learned to be a feminist, activist, volunteer, writer and consumer through the movement. I don’t think I would have developed my interest in social enterprise, or come to understand the power of unions, or trained myself to be skeptical of marketing and deliberate in my finances, if I had not been so unsettled by the news story about the collapse of a building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the death of more than 1,100 people — mostly women — who had made my clothes.
#FashionRevolution has also played such a leading role in my development as a sociologist because of the ways it has complicated theory’s relationship to praxis: the walking of the talk.
See, I did quit buying fast fashion, not-certified-ethical clothing when I was eighteen — but I also started again, when the effort I was expending to find clothing items that tick all the increasing number of boxes (ethical, good for the planet, my aesthetic, comfortable, good quality, a good fit for my petite frame, within my budget range and with a good cost-per-wear, generous returns policy just in case) became overwhelming. I began to make excuses, telling myself that expectations to only purchase ethical fashion is actually classism itself; progress is better than perfect; I’m just one person and at the end of the day, it’s not on individuals. Ultimately, I returned to being self-conscious; reverted back to compromising ‘ethical’ for the sake of all the other criteria.
I’ve gone through waves in the years since I first decided to do my bit for the movement, my guiding principles loosening and tightening: stricter periods of ‘if it’s not rated highly by Baptist World Aid, it’s off limits’, to ‘sustainable basics only, otherwise second-hand’, to ‘look, as long as you’ll be able to wear it a million times!’. In all these attempts to be a good consumer, I’ve had to be honest to myself about my own hypocrises, and to force myself to feel shame.
Yes, shame, because the truth is: progress is more convenient, takes less energy than perfect — but every day we spend away from perfect is enabling companies to risk lives and livelihoods; depleting scarce natural resources; locking entire national economies into a race to the bottom; creating waste; turning up the dial on the climate just a little more.
I’m writing this to remind myself of this fact and hold myself a bit more accountable, particularly because the #FashionRevolution movement has come such a long way.
Thanks to Macklemore, we all know what it means to thrift now; Depop and Ebay reign supreme. Sewing and upcycling tutorials are easy to find. There are a thousand and one guides out there to less-is-more, capsule wardrobe approaches, and reviews on all the things that you need to know to make a considered purchase. Ethical makers are becoming more numerous and accessible, and H&M and its like are embracing sustainable fibres and creating recycling programs.
Of course, not all of these above shifts in the past few years reflect sincere attempts to disassemble the nefarious workings of the garment industry. (Fuck sustainable ethical fashion bloggers who are so far up their own asses, they don’t see the irony in continuing to promote rabid consumerism — just with a bit more of a moral high ground. Fuck the conglomerates who use greenwashing to convince us it’s okay that they’re continuing to bring out new styles every week or so.) But they do give me fewer chances to do cognitive gymnastics and put things in the too-hard bucket.
Plus, I’ve come such a long way. I have a stable income now; I can no longer tell myself certain items of clothing are overpriced and unaffordable, when in fact they are priced just right — I simply do not value them enough. I am older and wiser; I am a little better at seeing how silly it is to be embarrassed about outfit-repeating (though old habits die hard); I have embraced wearing all black all the time and that is fine.
I wish I could go back in time and tell nine-year-old me: your clothes only say whatever you want them to say about you, and only you can decide that.
I’m particularly grateful for Aja Barber’s work, for making this difficult for me to deny. She doesn’t mince words. She doesn’t mind being absolute.